Professional success is liberal arts colleges’ best-kept secret

Negative connotations attached to ‘liberal’ and ‘arts’ have created a misleading perception of a transformative education model that delivers for students, say Barbara Altmann and Jeffrey Nesteruk

December 5, 2021
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Liberal arts colleges have a branding problem – and it is partly of their own making. It matters because if you mention their name in some quarters, you’ll meet surprising levels of scepticism, if not downright hostility.

Much of the challenge concerns rhetoric. “Liberal” has acquired a partisan political connotation, and “arts” seemingly excludes excellence in mathematics and the sciences. According to a 2017 Gallup study, neither term resonated with students or parents, while a similar poll with parents of children in secondary school declared “no college at all” was a better path to a good job than a “liberal arts degree”.

In fact, liberal arts college alumni enjoy a median return on their investment ($918,000, £692,000) that slightly exceeds those leaving engineering and technology schools ($917,000) and business and management schools ($913,000), according a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

But the term “liberal arts” acquires its full meaning best when illustrated through the stories that demonstrate its power – stories from those who live out diverse and rewarding careers rooted in this style of education.

Liberal arts colleges need to tell those real-life stories of professional success more than ever because their current narratives unwittingly bolster unfounded oppositions.

Because we extol the study of philosophy or literature or art, critics claim, we graduate individuals ill-equipped for practical affairs. Because we emphasise the importance of thoughtful reflection and analysis, our graduates aren’t ready for the decisive action required in the fast-paced world beyond our campuses.

There is a rhetorical trap here – often of our own making – that leaves us at a marked disadvantage. General versus particular. Theory versus practice. Reflection versus action. Any conversation that presupposes this kind of diametrical relation can’t help but undervalue the work of liberal arts colleges.

It is an especially pernicious trap because it is untrue. The working lives of the liberally educated persons we know as colleagues, students and alumni prove otherwise. A professor whose work reimagines the concept of sustainable development also devotes her time to establishing our state’s first residential composting programme. A geophysics-trained expert who works to identify and dispose of landmines throughout the world.

Fundamentally, the narrative we need to tell should emphasise how our colleges help individuals to maximise their full potential. For at its best, liberal education develops the entirety of a student’s capabilities. It aims to develop not only what students know, but what they can do, and not only what students can do, but ultimately who they are. The more liberal arts colleges display the capacious lives and remarkable success of their graduates, the less the blinkered oppositions can gain traction or hold sway.

The disruptive nature of the pandemic is still reverberating through the workforce. The Great Resignation – which has seen thousands rethink their intended careers in recent months – has forced some colleges and universities to rethink their educational models. Whether we like it or not, change is upon higher education, but it is change that the “liberal arts” is well equipped to meet and surpass.

The concept of stand-alone microcredentials has emerged as one of the answers for providing graduates and jobseekers with quick and bite-sized training to enter a new career path. While perhaps effective at training students for individual tasks, these accelerated offerings miss the broader development that can’t be manufactured in four- or six-week stints. By proclaiming every individual task our graduates may become certified to handle, do we not inadvertently say they’re incapable of handling countless others?

Liberal arts colleges don’t merely train students, they transform them. These singularly American institutions strive for more than a student’s development of skills. They foster the development of a student’s own distinctive self, an identity forged through the student’s own choices and interactions in a distinctively intellectual and socially engaged environment. And those agile, cross-trained thinkers make invaluable employees and leaders in times of rapid change.

The flourishing of liberal arts colleges in coming years will require creating more boundary-spanning initiatives that demonstrate this holistic education through programmes that embody the lives our graduates will increasingly lead. Here at Franklin & Marshall College, for example, our Business, Organisations and Society major embeds the study of business within a broad range of disciplines to prepare our students to move fluidly through the full spectrum of the evolving world of work.

By developing these interdisciplinary programs, liberal arts colleges help to dissolve the barriers among education, work and our larger lives. They help to prepare students for success in the increasingly seamless and interconnected world in which we live. But they also tap in their students something that is a deeper, perennial aspiration – the desire, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, for “an original relation to the universe”. What liberal arts colleges ultimately offer students is their own future selves, precious, luminous and irreplaceable as they undoubtedly will be. Succeeding in this endeavour is the best public argument we can make for our value.

Barbara Altmann is president of Franklin & Marshall College, a private liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Jeffrey Nesteruk is professor of legal studies.

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